Pre-Rut Can Be The Best Time…
The thing about big bucks is they always surprise you. This buck, a wide-beamed 10-point, showed up just a few minutes before dark after I climbed into my Cass County treestand. I didn’t expect to see deer so quickly, even after making a few buck grunts and just finished calling my hunting buddy. Shut the cell phone off, stuffed it in my pocket, and looked up to see the huge deer. He was 40 yards away, standing over a scrape, looking into a nearby tamarack swamp. He looked excited, ready to fight, muscles bulging, head cocked up, ears in an alert position, when I gave him a short grunt. Immediately his head whipped my direction and he moved straight at me on a trot.
As I reached for my bow, I knew exactly where he was heading. Next to my treestand was a fresh scrape and several rubs on trees the size of my thigh. I stumbled on the hotspot a few days earlier and decided to hang my stand because the place screamed big buck. When the awesome buck heard my tempting grunt he did exactly what I thought he would do. He made a beeline for the scrape, paying no attention to me. I was at full draw when he reached it, all I had to do was pick an opening and release the trigger. To sweeten the pie I waited until he crossed between two big trees, gave him a short grunt and he slammed on his brakes, exposing his broad chest for a perfect shot. I laced the arrow through his lungs, watched him mule-kick, run flat-out for less than fifty yards and fall face-first in a bed of leaves.
You know what?
The reason this buck came kissin’ close, like he was on a string, was because he responded to my call.
Taking advantage of whitetail bucks during the pre-rut is beyond a doubt the best time to score on a dandy. Deer are social by nature and verbally communicate on a daily basis. Using calls to attract love-struck bucks is a tactic that is bullet proof to take mature, pre-rut bucks. Now, toss in that deer have not been hunted much, are uneducated and free roaming in search of a hot doe; all of that makes hunting more successful and planning your attack depends on time of year or a deer’s biological urges. More importantly, when you suddenly see that monster of a lifetime, calling can get his attention, draw him from long distances and hold him stationary for a perfect bow shot. In my opinion, calling is the winning strategy critical to success.
In Michigan gun season has not started yet, but bow season is in full swing. Too many hunters make the common mistake of hunting hard during opening week of October, which is almost a month prior to the pre-rut when bucks come running to calls. Depending on the area, hunting pressure may be a factor during early bow season but once leaves begin to fall and weather turns cold, many archers head for the comfort of home. This is exactly when mature bucks become active and you can see more bucks than does while hunting. During this period bucks do not feel the need to remain close to home, their core area is expanded and they increase activity 100 percent. They travel regularly between feeding and bedding areas. The object now is for them to intercept a doe that is receptive. For bucks this is a frustrating period because they are ready to rock and roll but the girls in town are not interested. A buck’s biological clock has him fully prepared for breeding; this is why calling is so deadly during the pre-rut. This period works to the hunter’s advantage and is truly the primary reason mega-bucks suddenly become visible, traveling day and night and receptive to calling.
During this period, just about any hunting tactic will work; stand hunting, still hunting or ambush hunting along trails. But the key to success is dependent upon how well you can get the attention of wandering bucks and call them into close proximity for a bow shot. Try stand hunting at dawn and still hunting or ambush hunting during the day as you scout new territory and take stand again in late evening.
Calling techniques vary. I’m not impressed with the bawling cow-like sounds they make on the Outdoor Channel when they’re hunting states like Texas, on ranches overrun with mature deer. Sometimes TV producers go nuts taping too much sound, which mimics rut crazed deer vocalizing like love sick moose, in order to attract viewers. In our home state I’ve had my best luck sparingly using two deadly calls: buck grunt and doe bleat.
Each hunting situation is different and the amount you call and cadence used depends on each situation. For instance, if you spot a buck at long distance and want to bring him toward you call very loudly. If he does not look your way or respond, call even louder until you are certain he can hear you. Now, once you have him coming, shut up, allow the deer to come looking for the sound he heard. Never call when a deer is looking directly at you because he will easily determine the exact location of the call, spot you and blow out of Dodge. If you have a buck in good calling range, inside 100 yards, give him a couple grunts and wait. Watch the animal, if he stops and looks your direction he will probably eventually come to the call. If he keeps moving away increase the frequency and loudness until he investigates the sounds. Bucks inside 40 yards are suckers for a subdued buck grunt and will come directly to the sound.
During the pre-rut most buck grunts are somewhat soft, slightly deep throated and there is a 1-3 second pause between grunts. Most bucks are announcing their presence to family groups when they grunt. Once the rut comes into full swing a buck hot on a doe will make more calls, say 5-6 grunts in short succession, and the calls are louder. Breeding bucks are constantly vocalizing, subdued grunts are made during love sessions and loud grunts made with every step are common when chasing a hot doe. Other calls that will get the attention of bucks include: snort wheeze, fawn distress sounds, doe bleat, bawls, estrus bleats, growls and more.
Calling is an advantage to hunters who are ambushing, stalking or hunting from a ground blind. A buck coming straight at you offers a marginal bow shot but savvy hunters rely on close range chest and neck shots to finish the deal.
But what if you are stand hunting and want to see bucks. What calls should you use? Well, I recommend a doe bleat to start a sequence. Stick with the original Primos Can or Lil’ Can that gives communication bleats that bucks simply must investigate. Make 1-3 bleats and wait 5 minutes before you make 3-6 medium loud grunt calls that are evenly spaced 1 second apart. Now, stop look and listen, a buck that hears the calls can come from anywhere. Wait 15-30 minutes between calling sequences and occasionally increase volume during wind or if you think surrounding deer can not hear you.
Now comes the important part. You see a buck coming your way. What should you do?
Well, begin by stop calling and let the deer work into bow range. Avoid the temptation to call when deer are just out of bow range. Close up calling will help bucks to pinpoint your hunting location; they will quickly spot you and game over. If bucks tend to wander past or moving out of range, give them one short, subdued grunt to turn them.
Once deer come into bow range use your grunt to catch their attention and stop them in the exact spot where you can drill ’em. Don’t make the common mistake of drawing and passing on close shots because the buck continued walking. Pick a spot, a space between trees or small clearing in the brush and when the buck enters give him a sharp grunt. He will stop immediately, look your direction and offer a perfect standing shot.
I’m a buck grunt junkie and rely on deer calls to attract big bucks. I’ve used practically every call on the market but hit on a simple call that brings them like kids come for candy. My secret is simple: I learned how to belch like a buck grunt. Once I perfected the guttural sound of a live buck my hunting success soared. I gained confidence in burping up bucks and used the sure-fire strategy to call some big ol’ wall hangers into bow range. I practice frequently while sipping carbonated drinks. In the field I gulp air and make deer sounds that resemble real deer. I can bring them directly to me and stop them on a dime by making grunt sounds from my mouth.
When the pre-rut is in full swing I see bucks in 3 out of 5 spots in southern Michigan by rattling a branch or two, shuffling in leaves, making a few grunt calls and standing stationary. Soon interested bucks come to investigate. You would be amazed at how soft bucks grunt and how far deer can hear grunt calls, especially on a perfect fall day with little wind and quiet surroundings.
There are several quality calls on the market that resemble bucks grunting. I would stay clear of big buck grunts and settle on calls that resemble juvenile bucks. The problem with most calls is they are too loud. When deer communicate the sounds are very subtle, soft, and secretive. Some calls are adjustable by moving a ring or sliding the call to make a change in tone. Those with adjustable reed systems can be used to make a range of calls and they produce realistic calls.
I’m not a big fan of rattling in Michigan after a hair rising hunt in Calhoun County when a Boone buck strolled into a stubble field and I started a rattling sequence. The big bruiser had a non-typical rack, I’d hunted him for three years and when he heard the antlers crashing he turned tail and ran for the cover of a nearby thicket.
Last fall I gave a grunt call to my neighbor Scott Goldammer who was geeked up because he saw two bucks chasing a doe. “Did you grunt them?” I asked. “No, I didn’t have a call, replied the youth. The following morning when the kid crawled into his stand he noticed a dandy 8-point walking a trail nearby. He gave a call and the buck immediately responded by running into easy bow range. Well, actually the deer was too close, positioned directly below the stand, not the shot he wanted. When the buck walked out of range, the kid gave him another couple grunt calls and this time when he pranced close the young hunter whacked him with a perfect lung shot. That night I got a call from the excited bow hunter but he also yelled at me for not telling him earlier the best way to take a buck was by calling them into range. Now you know the rest of the story.
Often I grab a telephoto camera and go scouting for trophy bucks. You can get permission to photograph deer almost anywhere and once landowners get to know you they allow bow hunting. One of my best big buck strategies is to still-hunt bedding areas with camera. I move crosswind because bedded bucks are always facing downwind and I don’t want Bullwinkle to see my approach. Once I spot a buck I get down on one knee, focus the lens and give him a couple grunts. It is impressive to see the response through the powerful lens. At first they only glace the direction of the sound and then they stand or turn and face me, but eventually come to investigate. On several occasions I’ve had trophy bucks so close they spook when they hear the digital shutter capture their image on film. Another similar camera trick is to stalk close to tall grass, ready the camera and give several grunts. You would be amazed how often quality bucks pop out of bedding areas to investigate the belching sounds.
When attracting bucks, especially mature deer that are wise and coy, it is imperative to be fully camouflaged. Make certain, face, hands and head are entirely covered. You can easily tell if your camo is working because deer will look directly at you and act like they do not see your human form.
One of my best hunting buddies, Dean Shippey from Eaton Rapids, uses buck grunts for success. He prefers a hands free grunt call made by Away Outdoors called Bowgrunter Plus. The call pins to his hunting coat and allows him to call bucks while at full draw. The flexible call gives him hands free volume control and when deer are close he can stop them in their tracks and whack’em with ease.
Perhaps the most difficult part of calling a trophy buck is finding them in Michigan. Unfortunately the Wolverine State deer herd is mismanaged. Our bucks are overhunted, unlimited doe tags, late doe harvest season and double buck tags have put piles of money in DNR coffers but our deer herd is overshot, overhunted and the buck to doe ratio is completely out of whack. Many Michigan counties have a herd comprised of 20-30 does for every buck. Savvy hunters go out of state for trophy bucks. But some big deer do exist in Michigan and it is a challenge to find them. Most are found in southern Michigan close to metropolitan areas that are closed to hunting or offer sanctuaries near airports, cemeteries, housing complexes and private land. Counties in southern Michigan that continue to serve up whopper bucks include: Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Hillsdale, Lenawee, Washtenaw, Calhoun, Livingston, Oakland, Allegan and Macomb. The trick is to get permission on property adjoining sanctuaries.
While Michigan’s upper lower is full of deer few make the record book. Of course there are big bucks roaming the huge tracts of land in the Upper Peninsula that have little hunting pressure. The vastness of the forest, tamarack swamps and endless jack pines provides the solitude and wilderness setting that allows bucks to grow to maturity. Here, mossy horned old bucks roam the oak ridges and cedar swamps and offer savvy hunters an opportunity at a mature buck.
Again, the trick to trophy hunting is scouting and locating the core area of a big bruiser. Once you find it, don’t overhunt the monster and spook him into hiding or nocturnal activities. My suggestions are hunt sparingly and wait until late October to hunt in earnest. Once the pre-rut is in full swing and bucks go bonkers the monarch will suddenly appear. When he does, be prepared with calls to entice him close for an easy bow shot.